Phonak, a well-known maker of hearing aids and accessories, entered the consumer IEM market a few years ago with the original Audéo PFE or Perfect Fit Earphones. Since then, the PFE has grown in popularity and has seen a few revisions and new models have been added to the Audéo family, including the lower end Perfect Bass line and the top end PFE 232. The Audeo line gained a lot of praise and admiration for their sound quality, comfort and versatility so I've wanted to give them a try for some time now but never had the chance (or could justify the expense).
But, in February, Phonak announced that they are ceasing production of the Audéo line entirely, something I was quite disappointed to hear. When the opportunity arose to get my hands on a pair of PFE 121s, I jumped at it. I'd never heard any Audéo earphone before and I wanted to hear the swan song of this dying breed. So, read on for my full review of the Audéo PFE 121 IEMs
Packaging and Accessories: The Audéo PFE 121 comes in a pretty standard white cardboard box with a large front window and comes with three sets of silicone single flange tips, a pair of Comply foam tips made specifically for the PFE line, two sets of filters (grey and black), a filter changing tool, a cleaning tool a zippered carrying pouch and a set of silicone ear guides to assist with over the ear wear.
Design and Build Quality: The PFE's housings are plastic and surprisingly light. The cable is soft and pliable but also thick and fairly well relieved, only lacking traditional strain reliefs at the cable's entry to the housings. There's also a one button remote and microphone for use with iDevices on the right side cable which performed well in my tests.
Overall, the build quality seemed fine but I have heard complaints about the longevity of previous revisions so that's worth keeping in mind.
Comfort and Isolation: The light housings of the PFE fit well in the outer ear and tended to disappear while I listened to them. I wouldn't say the fit is...perfect per se, but if worn properly, they should prove to be very comfortable for many people.
Isolation, being that these are completely sealed balanced armature IEMs, is good. It sits above typical dynamic driver based sets and is in line with just about every other balanced armature IEM I've tried.
This is where the two pairs of filters come in. The grey and black filters impart different sonic qualities upon the PFE. The differences between the two are hardly night and day but they are there. With the black filters in place, the sound gets a slight bass "boost" by way of attenuating high frequencies which results in a slightly smoother sound to my ears because it muffles over some of the finer details in the process.
The grey filters offer up a more balanced and neutral sound signature with no significant frequency lift or emphasis, though I did find the upper midrange a bit more prominent with these filters in place and thus a bit more prone to sibilance.
Again, the differences between the two filters are hardly significant and fans of a more colored sound signature aren't going to be particularly amazed with the PFE. There are a set of green filters available that I believe are compatible with the standard PFE (they were made for the lower end PFE 022) but don't quote me on that, that further accentuate the low end but at the expense of more fine detailing.
The rest of this review will be based on the PFE with the grey filters installed.
The sound signature of the PFE is one that stresses clarity and neutrality and is distinctly armature-like in nature. Bass is quick and tight with great depth and a good sense of texture. This is a balanced armature IEM so you shouldn't expect the kind of visceral rumble and slow decay that dynamic driver IEMs portray but it has enough impact to keep things lively.
The midrange is well placed and smooth but not lacking detail. The clarity and speed are impressive and fine detailing is a stone's throw from the best IEMs I've heard. The neutrality of the sound signature is apparent here and is neither warm nor cold, allowing for a good deal of transparency. The treble is smooth and well extended to the upper limits of my hearing and sparkles nicely without becoming sibilant or harsh.
The soundstage is still very much in the listener's head but its clarity lends it a more open presentation than most IEMs and never sounds congested or overly confined. The PFE is good at portraying intimacy and images very well.
It's really a shame Phonak decided to kill off the Audéo PFE line because the 121 is a truly great IEM that has the versatility to sound great with pretty much every genre of music I threw at them. Yes, they're a bit on the clinical side for bass heavy genres but even then, I still found them enjoyable. However, these faced incredibly stiff competition from the likes of VSONIC, Rock-it Sounds, HiFiMan and others, all of which deliver highly articulate and detailed sound in a cheaper package in many cases. At $199 for the PFE 121/122 or $179 for the iPhone mic free 111/112 models, I don't think they have the same bang-for-the-buck appeal something like, say the RE400 or R-50 have and if I were pressed to say which earphones I preferred more, those two would win out above the PFE.
But there's something really special about the PFE I have before me. Its sound signature isn't necessarily unique but it's well realized, refined and highly enjoyable. If a transparent, neutral and articulate sound is what you're after, you could do far worse than the PFE. Get it while you can because once it's gone...it's gone for good.